Epic TV stands out for its preoccupation with the past. From historical dramas celebrating the saga of Mughal emperors to mythological epics like Mahabharata and from rediscovering the lost recipes from the kitchens of the Nizam of Hyderabad to the evolution of Ganga-Jamuni culture and traditions, it is distinctly different.
What has had truly hooked me though is Anurag Basu’s series based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novels and short stories. Like most Indians, I read Tagore’s Gitanjali, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and his popular stories like Kabuliwala in English.
However, my Bengali friends familiar with the great man’s vast oeuvre insist that one must read him in the language he originally wrote to appreciate his versatile genius and range. This is true for all great literature. The essence of the original is often lost in translation. Who can capture the magic of Homer, Shakespeare, Kabir or Ghalib? Few of us can master all the beautiful languages. However, it would be a shame if we remained deprived of experiencing a particular culture and civilisation and the best of literature merely because we are unfamiliar with a particular language.
This is where the often underrated and unacknowledged role of translators comes in. Though some original beauty is lost in translation, we are a great deal richer as a result of our efforts to arm ourselves with the wisdom and experience passed down over the ages, across languages.
Tagore’s vast repertoire of fiction and poetry certainly belongs in that category. For, like all great literature, it celebrates universal values of peace, humanism and tolerance. Above all, like that of his less fortunate and less rewarded fellow traveller Premchand, Tagore’s fiction is firmly rooted in the great Indian traditions. It is fashioned out of the warm earthiness of a subcontinental experience. Yet it celebrates values that are prized and cherished by all cultures and humanity, thus touching a chord in all of us.
Look at the heartwarming story of Kabuliwala. It celebrates Tagore’s belief in humanity and his generosity of spirit. The inimitable Balraj Sahni immortalised the character of the Afghan dry fruit seller Rahmat Khan in its celluloid adaptation, portraying the simplicity, honesty and subtle shades of a homesick Pathan fallen on hard times with characteristic, understated brilliance.
The middle-aged Rahmat Khan befriends and falls in love with a little Bengali girl, Mini, while hawking his wares in Calcutta. With her guileless innocence and playfulness, she reminds him of his own daughter, Amina, far away in Kabul.
Fate intervenes when following an altercation with a customer an agitated Rahmat stabs him and is jailed for 10 years. The first thing Rahmat does after his release is pay a visit to Mini who is now about to get married. When Mini fails to recognise him, initially, Rahmat is heartbroken. He realises that his own daughter Amina would be as old as Mini and might not recognise him. He longs to go home but after years in jail, he has got no means of doing so. Finally, Mini’s kind father spares some money from his daughter’s dowry and forces it on the proud Pathan, persuading him to go home.
Apart from the innate beauty and universality of Tagore’s Kabuliwala, what makes it truly special is the fact that he wrote it when the tensions between Hindus and Muslims were at their peak, especially in Bengal, following the partition along communal lines in 1905.
Beyond the immediate vexing question of the Hindu-Muslim equation, Kabuliwala also teaches us that all humanity is one family and that love conquers all distinctions and barriers of borders, colours and creed. Even when there was little that was common between the rustic Pathan from Afghanistan and the little Bengali Hindu girl in Calcutta, they managed to establish a strong and enduring bond of friendship and humanity.
If Mini and Rahmat Khan could do it, why can’t the two major communities of the subcontinent, Hindus and Muslims do so? After all, they have built and shared so much, not to mention a synthetic culture, over a thousand years of coexistence.
Premchand also celebrated this shared legacy of common values, ideals and aspirations in his writings. He gave us great novels like Godan and came up with brilliant short stories such as Eidgah, Nejat and Kafan. Just as he wrote for Urdu and Hindi readers and is claimed by both as their own, Premchand passionately championed Hindu-Muslim unity and strove for it through his writings without appearing to be preachy.
The father of Urdu-Hindi short story, Premchand writings were known for their stark simplicity and honesty, celebrated equality of men, universal brotherhood, liberty and spoke out against all oppression and exploitation.
Today, as the gulf between Hindus and Muslims on one hand and India and Pakistan on the other is at its widest, there is a need to promote the writings of greats like Tagore and Premchand. More writers must follow their example to tell stories that celebrate our shared humanity in all its hues and complexity for a better, peaceful world.
(The author is an award-winning Indian journalist based in Dubai. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )